When Lil Reese tells you to get out of the car, you exit the vehicle as fast as you can.
The tension began to boil at breakfast when Brandon, a paunchy white kid and perennial sidekick to Chicago’s hip-hop elite, promised Reese a free necklace from a jeweler friend in Los Angeles who bills himself as “Your Rapper’s Favorite Jeweler.” Now, in the backseat of a Chevy Malibu parked on Chicago’s South Side, Brandon’s generosity has been turned on its head by Reese, a brooding 21-year-old with bushy eyebrows and tattoos that crawl up his arms and onto his neck like lichen on an oak tree. Put simply: If you offer Reese a necklace, he’s going to want it now.
“Let me see that piece for a minute,” Reese says, tugging at the Medusa-head medallion around Brandon’s neck. “No,” Brandon says, pushing Reese away. “This is sentimental.”
A long pause.
“What the fuck is sentimental?” Reese shoots back.
“Reesie,” Brandon pleads, “he’s gonna FedEx two chains to you. I promise, yo.” His voice clears with sincerity. “On my mother.”
Reese is unmoved. “Let me see it now,” he demands.
“Reesie,” Brandon stammers back.
“I’ll give it back when I get those two pieces,” Reese continues, his voice growing cold.
“Yo, Reesie,” Brandon says. “I’m going to New York and I want to wear my piece.”
“Ethan,” Reese’s baritone booms from the back of the car, “step outside.”
That is how I end up standing on the sidewalk on a crisp Chicago morning, listening to a series of strained yelps and choking sounds emanating from the car. I scan the street for our driver, Idris Abdul Wahid, a.k.a. Peeda Pan. As manager of Glory Boyz Entertainment and Chief Keef, Chicago’s most explosive rapper, Wahid is a kingpin of the city’s young rap talent. He is also the crew’s fixer, facilitator, negotiator and all-around handler. At this moment he has parked us here and gone off in search of marijuana for Reese, who appears in no hurry to catch an impending flight.
Behind me the car door is flung open and a red-faced Brandon clambers out with Reese clawing at his neck. He jerks free from Reese’s grasp and makes a near-Olympian break down the block. “Don’t pull that police shit,” Reese hollers after, hands cupped around his mouth.
“What the fuck just happened?” Wahid asks with a grin, emerging from around a corner. But he’s less interested in details than in finding the flipped-out white boy. Calls go straight to voice mail, but three blocks later, a taxi appears with Brandon in the backseat. He huffs out, removes his luggage from our trunk, clambers back into the taxi and speeds off. Reese holds a rapacious smile, an internet beat-down video-star smile, one that seems to say, “What the fuck did he expect me to do?”
But Brandon did offer Reese that jewelry, so Reese insists Wahid persuade him back into the car. Wahid gets Brandon on the line and convinces him to meet us at a nearby gas station. When we arrive, Brandon opens the door and eyes Reese with suspicion. He offers a truce: “We cool?” Reese assures Brandon they are in fact cool.
In the spectrum of Chicago hip-hop violence and drama, the event is nothing, a minor blip in the explosive and predatory behavior of the city’s rising hip-hop stars, few of whom are older than 21. It doesn’t rank anywhere near the events of last May, when Keef proclaimed on Twitter that Katy Perry could “suck skin off of my dick” and that he would “smack the shit out her” after she had disapproved of his new single, “Hate Bein’ Sober,” or when video emerged of Reese pummeling a young woman until she falls to the floor and is kicked several times as someone in his crew shouts, “Stomp her!”
As Brandon resumes his place in the backseat, he sparks a blunt, signaling a brokered peace. Wahid steers the Malibu toward Midway airport, kush smoke curling in the air. For the moment, there is peace. Or at least as close as it gets in Chicago hip-hop.
Despite constant fights (both real and online), lawsuits and arrests for crimes ranging from unpaid child support to illegal weapons possession, as well as proud, unabashed affiliations with local gangs such as the Black Disciples and the Gangster Disciples, Chicago’s crews have not just thrived but totally dominated the hypercompetitive world of hip-hop. It is a decades-old formula for an art form whose most powerful statements germinated in areas experiencing epidemics of violence, drugs and poverty. Queens. Compton. Atlanta. New Orleans. The only difference in Chicago is that this generation has a bigger voice: social media.
“I know a thousand Chief Keefs,” superproducer Swizz Beatz declared in October, citing the commonality of Keef’s up-from-the-hood story. But what the success of Keef—an 18-year-old millionaire whose road to hip-hop fame was paved largely by YouTube views and street mixtapes—demonstrates to the thousands of wannabe MCs is that they can do what he did. Chicago’s moment is a generational departure from previous musical revolutions, as a veritable army of Keefs have a democratized means of production at their disposal. Specifically, their music is distributed and promoted via Twitter, Instagram and visceral straight-to-YouTube videos.
“I’m not sure any of this would have been possible without Keef,” says Andrew Barber, editor-in-chief of Chicago’s influential hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive, referring to the current Chicago hip-hop renaissance.
The ascendance of Chicago’s hottest young star began in 2011 with a series of YouTube videos featuring Keef, skinny with a mischievous grin and half-lidded eyes hidden behind a sprout of twisted dreads. Pounding tracks such as “I Don’t Like” and “3Hunna” were produced by Young Chop, who at the age of 11 used a suite of pirated production software to birth the sound that would define his city: icy piano melodies, overblown bass drums and thwacking hi-hats, punctuated by screams and gunshots imbued with danger and ready-to-jump energy. His approach launched half a dozen young stars and invented the Chicago sound now nicknamed Drill. And the stocky, dread-headed teen did it from his mother’s South Side house, where, he claims, it took 20 to 30 minutes to produce “3Hunna.”
“‘3Hunna’ got big radio,” Chop remembers, “20,000 plays the first day, then a million views on YouTube.” By the following spring, Kanye West had remixed Keef’s “Don’t Like” with heavy hitters Pusha T and Big Sean just as Keef inked a three-album deal with Interscope worth $6 million. His full-length debut, Finally Rich, appeared in December 2012, reaching number 14 on Spin’s 2013 year-end list of best rap albums. Rolling Stone said Keef “seems unshakably confident but profoundly directionless. The effect is mesmerizing, and a little scary.” Chop signed a deal with Warner Music Group, where he’s currently working on Sean “Diddy” Combs’s new album, as well as on a flurry of mixtapes and singles for a growing crew of Chicago stars.
What they lacked in marketing budget Keef and company made up for by brilliantly exploiting their youth and internet savvy. Tweets, YouTube videos and Instagram posts were eagerly scooped up and reposted by the likes of Media Take Out, WorldStarHipHop and Complex Media. “These sites see millions and millions of page views every month,” says media strategist Ryan Holiday, “and have their own celebrities and gossip. Guys like Keef are doing things just to get attention in this sphere.” When Keef endured a series of lawsuits and arrests in 2013, he even earned his own news ticker on TMZ, titled “Saga: What’s the Trouble, Chief?” For a moment it appeared the scene might collapse under the weight of perpetual chaos.
“Let’s see who gives a fuck about Chief Keef in three years,” warned Shot97 radio personality Star in an interview. But 2013 demonstrated just how deep Chicago’s hip-hop bench runs. That January saw Justin Bieber, of all people, sporting a black baseball cap bearing the insignia of Treated Crew, a band of rappers, producers and designers fronted by Kanye West’s longtime DJ Million Dollar Mano. The embrace arrived despite the fact that Chicago provides, as Mano told me, the “biggest fuckin’ uphill battle that every eccentric black man has. We have to jump and chase the chances, because there are none here.”